What Do Psychiatrists Think About Caring for Patients Who Have Extremely Treatment-Refractory Illness?

AJOB Neurosci. 2023 Jun 28:1-8. doi: 10.1080/21507740.2023.2225467. Online ahead of print.


Questions about when to limit unhelpful treatments are often raised in general medicine but are less commonly considered in psychiatry. Here we describe a survey of U.S. psychiatrists intended to characterize their attitudes about the management of suicidal ideation in patients with severely treatment-refractory illness. Respondents (n = 212) received one of two cases describing a patient with suicidal ideation due to either borderline personality disorder or major depressive disorder. Both patients were described as receiving all guideline-based and plausible emerging treatments. Respondents rated the expected helpfulness and likelihood of recommending each of four types of intervention: hospitalization, additional medication changes, additional neurostimulation, and additional psychotherapy. Across both cases, most respondents said they were likely to provide each intervention, except for additional neurostimulation in borderline personality disorder, while fewer thought each intervention would be helpful. Substantial minorities of respondents indicated that they would provide an intervention they did not think was likely to be helpful. Our results suggest that while most psychiatrists recognize the possibility that some patients are unlikely to be helped by available treatments, many would continue to offer such treatments.

Keywords: Futility; mental health; palliative care; psychiatry; suicidal ideation; treatment-refractory mental illness.